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Shell shock – EU ends sale of live scallops


August 12 2011 Guy Grieve


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Diving for scallops is one of the most sustainable forms of fishing currently practiced in the UK. Small scale and unmechanised, the divers individually select their scallops by hand without harming other species or causing any damage to marine habitat. Only small boats are needed, generally affordable enough for people to get started without going into massive debt. Small quantities of fuel are consumed. And unlike any other fishing method, dive fishermen are actually able to practice a kind of marine stewardship. For two years I have been diving for scallops, and have carefully placed any small scallops that I lift back into areas of the seabed where I know they will flourish. Known in the trade as ‘chucky patches’, every wise diver will have many of these scattered around at top secret locations, carefully marked for future reference on his or her charts. The small scallops put down are left in peace to grow, out of reach of dredgers, and will spawn many times more before they are finally harvested. Thus our method of fishing creates areas of intense fertility, helping to ensure stocks for the future.

The Ethical Shellfish Company sells the results of this 100% sustainable fishing to some of the best chefs in the UK, and as well as harvesting our own scallops we also buy from other local divers and creel fishermen, putting over £100,000 into our local economy in our first year. A truly happy state of affairs made even sweeter by winning a sustainable business award at the recent CIS Excellence Awards. It was our hope that we could show that it is possible to run a successful fishing business without resorting to invasive fishing methods, and we were poised to grow our business from its early beginnings… But newly enforced EU legislation regarding the sale of the live scallop is now seriously threatening our continued success. Worse, it is threatening the entire dived scallop industry, which in turn may leave the way clear for dredge boats, which leave little besides mud and rubble in their wake.

Let me explain: two years ago a new EU regulation came into force, whereby all scallops that were going to be sold live in the shell must pass stringent tests to eliminate the risk of poisoning by algal toxins. Reasonable enough, one might think. The allowed level of algal toxins is set at 20 micrograms per gram – very low, realistically far too low to do anyone any harm. But still, sensible to err on the side of caution. The common sense ends here. All the toxins are present in the scallops’ viscera, not in their meat – much like any other animal in fact. The scallop muscle (the part that you eat) never fails its toxin test – we know, as we have done a year’s worth of stringent weekly tests. Unlike mussels and oysters, scallops are invariably shucked prior to preparation, so the dubious parts
are removed. And yet, this EU rule states that the scallop must be tested in its entirety, mushed up in a blender, meat, viscera and all, to eliminate the risk of an unwise chef shucking it incorrectly.

Now this makes no sense at all. Firstly, chefs are trusted to handle all kinds of raw foods, from game to crab to the notorious trigger fish. Some of these have the potential to kill us if incorrectly prepared – but the scallop, it seems, presents the greatest risk.

So okay, a sensible person would say, if you’re going to insist on testing the animal whole, guts and all, then set the pass mark at a reasonable level – well below any risk to human health, but high enough to take account of the fact that the guts – which in any case will be removed before eating – will affect the reading. Until two years ago this was the case, and the fail rate of the whole shell algal toxin test was set at a very reasonable 200 micrograms per gram. But no, the whole shell test is now set at the same level as the shucked scallop test – 20 micrograms per gram, which is quite simply impossible to pass.

We have speculated that this could have been the result of a typo – somewhere in a back office in Brussels someone must have missed off a zero by mistake. For what sensible body could set a rule like this? On the other hand, there may be a more sinister explanation. There have been mutterings that this could be deliberate sabotaging of the dive fishing industry – big scale fishing has a powerful lobby in Brussels, and perhaps it’s not convenient to have divers down below, witnessing the environmental damage being caused by intensive fishing methods. Perhaps there are those who don’t want chefs to be able to buy sustainably sourced scallops, or highlight the fact that it is possible to catch these wonderful shellfish without destroying entire marine habitats in the process. But this is just speculation. For now, we must concentrate on the facts, which are that these regulations have effectively made it impossible to sell live scallops in the shell.

This is a devastating blow for scallop divers, whose catch has been sold at a much higher price than their dredged equivalent in recognition of its superior provenance, and the great danger and discomfort they face in their daily job. Traditionally dived scallops have usually been sold live in the shell, mostly supplied to top end hotels and restaurants where provenance really counts. Now it will be much harder to distinguish between dive caught and dredged, as they will all have to be shucked prior to sale. The result is a crash in dived scallop prices which has forced divers to dive longer days, possibly jeopardizing their health, harvesting more scallops and being less picky about size. The practice of running chucky patches is being discarded, as divers have to harvest all their scallops – many of which will simply be sold now as ‘meat’ – in order to make things pay. Many shellfish dealers sell both dived and dredged scallops, and the line between the two is now being increasingly blurred.

This rule is now being energetically enforced by Environmental Health Officers across Scotland and, we’re told, the UK. Despite appealing to common sense, we have been told nothing can be done to change this until it comes up for review in 2016. By then, unless common sense can rise up and set things in order, dive fishing may well be a thing of the past. A victory for the factories, dealers and dredge boats, which will happily rule our coastlines, with dive fishermen and their awkward questions about destruction of the marine environment nicely out of the picture.


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12 Responses to "Shell shock – EU ends sale of live scallops"

Bob Parrysays:

Good article. ! Next step ? Will be in touch


Andrew Du Bourgsays:

This cant happen, I think there needs to be a bigger shout. If we let them win we are going to end up with oceans full of jelly fish and plankten. What can we do to HELP?


richard muir says:

Excellent article and I guess you speak on behalf of most responsible restaurateurs. I was inspected by the Edinburgh EHO's three weeks ago and their visit was followed up with a circular regarding scallops in the shell. As a small country and with the West Coast communities being supported by small companies responsibly farming their land and sea beds we really should prepare a coherent plan that forces a wider debate with our local government on these issues. Arguably the finest natural larder in the world potentially ruined by a department of suits in Brussels!! Keep up the good work Guy your products are superb. Richard


guy grievesays:

Thank you for the notes of support above. There does need to be some kind of co-ordination of response to this very silly rule or else I do sense there will be trouble. Might be best to start by building up a list of supporters here. Can I suggest that anyone interested in helping email me?


Tony Singh says:

Guy keep up the great work, give us a shout if we can help


Kenneth Northcutt says:

I like reading blogs with a cause... Thank you very much for those helpful support notes you provide. This will really affect us especially me a fly fishing addict guy. Looking forward to your next post!


Bill Burrowssays:

Dont let the europeans rule England we have a Queen for that . dont let the politicians sell out a wonderfull country . STAND UP NOW .


Greg Babinecz says:

Excellent article. Thank you. I see a lot of parallels in the US Drakes Bay Oyster issue with the National Park Service. Sustainable aquaculture being shutdown when it should be replicated.


Jamie Howard says:

This is extremely concerning. Unfortunately the EEC issues directives like confetti with little idea of the practical impact of such rulings. They are generally all-encompassing and 'broad brush' with little regard for regional differences. Great article, hope you have success in bringing some common sense into the situation!


Daye Tucker says:

EVERYONE needs to write to their MSP AND in particular their MEP. Alyn Smith MEP is very active on the EU fishing front as is Richard Lochhead Scotland's Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries, Rural Affairs and the Environment.


Lisa Padgalskassays:

I'm way back in California and found your blog. This is terrible... and shows what our oceans and responsible fishermen are up against. As more and more people find out what's happening, things have got to change. Thanks for your blog, Guy.


Vietnam Fish says:

It gives you both the qualities health with taste. Fresh Alaska seafood gives you these benefits.


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